WASHINGTON – Concern about national security (search) is dominating public attention in the final months of the presidential campaign because of continuing fears of terrorism and unhappiness about the war in Iraq, according to a poll released Wednesday.
"For the first time since the Vietnam era, national security issues are looming larger than economic issues in an election year," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (search).
Such issues as war, terrorism and foreign policy were named as the most important facing the nation by four people in 10, while one-fourth of those polled said economic issues were most important. In January, national security issues were even with economic issues in this poll.
The last election year when national security issues were rated the most important was 1972, according to Pew's analysis of its own and Gallup Poll (search) data going back half a century.
It's unclear whether the security focus is of more benefit to President Bush or Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Among the sentiments that would seem to favor Bush:
— Nine in 10 say taking measures to protect the United States from terrorist attacks is a top priority.
— Six in 10 say the use of military force can sometimes be justified against countries that may seriously threaten this country but have not attacked.
— Bush is seen as stronger on handling terrorism than Kerry.
Others would seem to favor Kerry:
— Two-thirds are worried about a loss of respect internationally by the United States and most think that is a major problem.
— Six in 10 say the Bush administration is too quick to use force rather than trying harder for diplomatic solutions.
— People were more inclined to say that foreign policy should take allies' interests into account than to say foreign policy should be based mostly on U.S. interests.
The poll found that 43 percent feel the use of torture is sometimes justified and another 21 percent say it is rarely justified.
"The reason why we have all those people saying we can do some torture is because they continue to be scared," Kohut said. "That fear factor is what Bush has going for him."
As Kohut sees the election: If it were decided purely on terrorism, Bush would likely win; if it were decided purely on the economy, Kerry would likely win.
"In a sense, Iraq has become the trump card," he said.
When people are asked who would do a better job of handling Iraq, Bush and Kerry are tied, according to the Pew poll.
"Even though Bush's approval rating on Iraq is pretty miserable (43 percent approve), Kerry has yet to make that issue work for him," Kohut said.
Bush's problems in Iraq (search) include a death toll nearing 950 U.S. soldiers, a violent insurgency against the new Iraqi government and U.S. forces, and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, which was among the central justifications for the president's decision to go to war.
But Kerry has struggled with stating his position on Iraq, defending his vote authorizing the war while criticizing the Bush administration's conduct of the war and difficulties in postwar Iraq.
Democrats say Kerry has a "nuanced position" and Republicans call the Democrat's position a series of flip-flops.
National polls have shown the overall race remains close, with Kerry slightly ahead in some surveys.
The Pew study was based primarily on a poll of 2,009 adults taken July 8-18 with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points and a second poll taken in August. The second poll of 1,512 adults from Aug. 5-10 has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The August poll was taken to provide updated findings on Iraq and the president's job approval rating, which remains in the mid-40s.